The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted business sectors across the globe, leading to massive job losses — including those held by migrant workers.
In response to the situation, civil society organisations and global trade unions have banded together to launch a call for an urgent justice mechanism for migrant workers who have been repatriated as a result of the pandemic.
Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA), a non-government organisation based in the Philippines, in its call to action said that repatriation processes “have been undertaken hastily by countries of both origin and destination, without any proper redress mechanism, since courts and other labour dispute mechanisms have also been closed during the period of the lockdown”.
Repatriation of migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic that is not subject to proper controls by the authorities, said MFA, may allow employers to exploit “mass repatriation programs to terminate and return workers who have not been paid their due compensation, wages and benefits”.
“Without ensuring that companies and employers are doing their due diligence to protect and fulfill the human rights and labour rights of repatriated migrant workers, states across the migration corridor become complicit in overseeing procedures where millions of workers will be returning without their earned wages or workplace grievances being heard, nor seeing justice in their situation,” the organisation warned.
Millions of migrant workers, MFA added, will also face debt bondage as they will be forced to pay off recruitment fees and costs despite returning empty-handed.
MFA in its call to action also highlighted how many migrant workers have experienced termination or not being paid their due wages, as well being “forced by employers to take unpaid leave or reduced wages, been confined in poor living conditions, and with little or no engagement in the work options before them”.
“This is a gross violation of labour rights on a large scale. Wage theft will account for millions of dollars to the detriment of workers and the benefit of businesses and employers who will be exempted from any accountability, even if states and banks extend a helpline to reestablish themselves and adjust to the new normal,” added the organisation.
“Many migrant workers also struggle with the dilemma of exercising their right to return in these circumstances, while others remain stranded in cities without access to services or support, or in border areas, living in precarious conditions posing as quarantine facilities,” said MFA.
MFA said in a statement on Tuesday (2 June) that a fair and urgent justice mechanism must hold employers and companies accountable for the rights of repatriated migrant workers, “given that lack of control across migration corridors will make repatriated workers prone to abuse and unfair treatment, especially those who had to pay their recruitment costs, despite returning home without any money”.
“The pandemic must not stifle our will, our spirit and commitment for justice. If we are to ‘Build Back Better’, we cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the issue of wage theft that has been persistent across migration corridors for years will be unprecedented in the case of repatriated migrant workers in the COVID-19 pandemic,” said William Gois, Regional Coordinator of MFA.
Problems faced by migrant workers: Longer working hours, no overtime payment
A joint survey held by the Human Rights Watch Group (HRWG), Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Union (SBMI), and Migrant Workers’ Network (JBM) conducted from 21 April to 30 April revealed several problems Indonesian migrant workers faced in some of the countries.
The poll showed that 54 per cent of construction workers in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia surveyed have not received their payment at the time.
Meanwhile, 95 per cent of Indonesian migrant workers in Hong Kong and Singapore surveyed were still working and receiving their salaries at the time. However, their movement is restricted and they were not paid overtime despite being overworked.
The surge in the numbers of COVID-19 cases — mostly from migrant workers’ crowded dormitories — has triggered a call to reduce Singapore’s reliance on low-wage migrant labour.
Trade and Industry Minister Mr Chan Chun Sing said last Saturday however that Singapore still requires such migrant workforce for the three sectors.
“The fundamental question is… what proportion of our labour force is prepared to do these sectors’ jobs?” Mr Chan questioned.
“I’m not saying that nobody wants to go into the construction industry. I’m saying that I think (Singaporeans) want a diversity of jobs,” the minister added.